Thursday, September 21, 2017

"If Determinism Were True There'd Be No Reason To Try And Convince Anyone Of Anything"


It's one of the most common responses you'll hear from people who believe in free will: If determinism were true there'd be no reason to try and convince anyone of anything.

There's just one little bitty problem with the claim. The exact opposite is true. Over on Strange Notions (a site I've been frequenting recently) they've written a whole series of blog posts attempting to refute Sean Carroll's last book The Big Picture. One of them, entitled Is Free Will Real or Are We All Determined? critiques Carroll's defense of determinism. All of the critiques are bad and misleading but the fourth one makes use of the claim above:

A fourth problem is that if determinism was true, Carroll would not be writing books attempting to persuade people of that fact. If reality is fundamentally determined, why would he spend time trying to convince readers to freely change their minds, to freely adjust their understanding of the world to align with poetic naturalism? Even if I, a theist, read Carroll's book and become convinced that poetic naturalism was true, I couldn't freely reject my theism, no matter what I chose or how hard I tried—I'm simply determined to believe what I believe.

The first part is totally incorrect. If determinism is true, things you do or say have a causal effect on people who hear them. However, it's only if free will is true — where your thoughts are uncaused and thus have no connection to anything that happen before them — that it makes no sense to convince anyone of anything. Don't confuse determinism with fatalism. On fatalism, things happen regardless of whether they're caused. On determinism, things only happen if they're caused. Trying to convince someone determinism is true will increase the likelihood they will accept it because you might be that causal force that changes their mind, and nobody knows the future with certainty. So it makes perfect sense to try and convince someone of something on determinism, but it makes no sense whatsoever to do so on free will. Free will requires your thoughts be uncaused (lest they wouldn't be free) and you cannot by definition have control over anything uncaused. So there is no "freely" coming to conclusions on free will; they'd all be random fluctuations.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

What Questions Would You Ask A Catholic Philosopher?


Over on Strange Notions, they advertised an AMA (ask me anything) featuring Catholic philosopher Edward Feser. Readers, particularly atheist readers, were encouraged to write in questions, and some would be chosen for him to answer in a future post on the site.

I've read and reviewed his book The Last Superstition a few years ago, and was not particularly impressed by it. There were so many questions that arose from reviewing his book that Catholics like him fail to adequately explain that I decided to compile many of them into a single blog post.

Here is the list that I'd ask Feser, or any other Catholic philosopher, about their philosophy that I think makes little sense. It was compiled from a comment of mine on the site that used questions from my review.

  1. When did the rational soul begin to exist during the course of our evolution? Did Homo naledi have it? What about Neanderthals? Or Homo erectus
  2. Given evolution, was there a single human who got a rational soul whose parents didn't have one? If so, was he or she able to talk or think in a way their parents weren't? 
  3. Was this person as rational in capability as the average modern person is today, and were their parent's behavior like homo erectus or some other transitional hominid? 
  4. If natural selection could get us homo sapiens to the point where we acquired "such a level of complexity that it was possible for an animal to exist which was capable of having a rational soul," then why do we need god or the soul as an explanatory force for that matter?
  5. What is a squirrel's perfect essence? Does it depend on the species? Or geographic region? Does the North American tree squirrel have a different "Form," then say, the flying squirrels of Asia? And does a squirrel's "perfect" essence evolve as squirrels were evolving and changing or does it suddenly come to be in one squirrel generation? Any "genetic defect" that an animal might have could give it an advantage to its environment. That's one of the driving mechanisms for how evolution works after all. And that "defect" might become spread throughout that entire population through natural selection and gene flow. At what point does the mutation become the "Form" or "essence"? 
  6. What is the perfect form, essence, or nature of a human being? David Hasselhoff? Brad Pitt? Michaelangelo's David? Joseph Smith? The Islamic prophet Mohammad? Or is it Jesus?
  7. In The Last Superstition, you make several arguments against abortion. Among them, you say it's a "particularly violent interference with nature's purposes." (146) I suppose that would mean circumcision is too, right?
  8. God lacks passive potency, Thomists claim, but how can god create or become Jesus and not change?
  9. How can something with no size, shape, location, mass, motion or solidity act on bodies, or act on anything physical, especially without violating the conservation of energy and quantum field theory?
  10. If god doesn't reason or choose things in anything like the human sense of doing so, and he's timeless, how and why did he decide to create a universe that is apparently contingent on his will?
  11. Why does the universe have to be essentially ordered? Why does an atom need to be continually held in existence by a god? Is it metaphysically impossible for god to create something physical that continues to exist without sustenance? Is that something god can't do, like creating a stone he cannot lift?
  12. How does the "soul" go from act to potency without something outside to actualize it?
  13. From the Aristotelian perspective, how could we even distinguish a series of events having a final cause versus a series of events that didn't?
  14. How are Forms able to somehow have a causal relationship with the atoms in the physical brain via the "intellect," in a way that physics has not already discovered — since that is indeed what the Thomistic view would entail?
  15. What is it that makes the body proceed to move in a way that's in accordance with the intellect? Was it going to do so anyway via a purely material process irrespective of the intellect and will? If so, what's the point of the intellect here? How is it causal? Is it just a coincidence that the physical body moves according to what the intellect and will just so happens to think?
  16. Couldn't god have created us with a different nature, which would rationally entail a different kind of morality? Couldn't god, for example, have made humans reproduce by laying a large amount of eggs ensuring that only a few could possibly be raised to adulthood instead of giving birth to live young? What principle prevents god from doing that? In other words, was god's choice in creating our nature the way it is at all arbitrary, or is there some logically necessary reason why he created our nature the way it is? If so, what's that logically necessary reason?
If there are any Catholics out there who want to take a shot at these questions above, please do so in the comments below. I'd appreciate your efforts.

Monday, September 18, 2017

On Being Politically Homeless


Editor's note: this blog post was originally written in January 2016 and never published. After realizing this I've edited it to update it for today.

I've been wanting to write a blog post for some time about the politics and attitudes surrounding liberalism, "regressive leftism," Islam, and immigration. I was inspired by the events back in January of 2016 in Cologne Germany where groups of men who appeared to be of Middle Eastern and North African decent sexually assaulted hundreds of women and raped at least two. Some of those who committed the assaults may have been recently arrived refugees, and predictably, there were many conservatives saying "I told you so."

What I face here is a very complicated and tricky situation, and navigating it is like walking over a dilapidated roped bridge over a raging river: every step must be carefully planned.

I am at heart a liberal. I believe in liberty and equality and fairness and tolerance, and I despise racism and bigotry of all sorts. But the situation today regarding Islam, immigration, and political correctness is really challenging my liberal identity. Some of the things I hear coming out of the aptly termed "regressive left" are making me nauseous — while at the same time I can understand where they're coming from as a liberal myself.

Many people on the Left are genuinely concerned about racism and bigotry towards people of Middle Eastern or Asian ethnicity, but their political correctness inhibits them from acknowledging and coming to terms with the reality of what we face with Islam.

I am concerned about the rise of right-wing fascist groups and political parties in Europe and in other Western counties. I definitely don't want to see Europe go down that path. But at the same time, I'm concerned about rising immigration of people from Muslim majority counties into Europe. Just as I don't want to see Europe go down the road of right-wing fascism, I also don't want to see Europe in 30 years looking like Egypt or Saudi Arabia.

As a liberal, I want Europe to remain open and tolerant, but tolerating views that oppose that very same tolerance is in the long run problematic. There is a huge cultural clash between the disturbingly conservative views that many of those from Muslim majority countries hold, with the liberal, secular, and open European cultures. And labeling anyone who says that Europe should consider limiting its immigration a xenophobe, a racist, or a bigot, is highly unproductive. What many on the Left do not have any tolerance for is anything against their tolerance for multiculturalism. But meanwhile, they'll tolerate the sexism and homophobia of brown skinned Muslims because they're an "oppressed" minority in the West.

This level of hypocrisy is madness.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Top 10 Cognitive Biases We Need To Be Aware Of


Cognitive biases are tendencies to think in certain ways that can lead to systematic deviations from a standard of rationality or good judgment, and are often studied in psychology and behavioral economics.

This is a list of what I think are probably the 10 most common and perhaps most harmful cognitive biases we have when we're discussing or debating. They constantly derail productive discourse and prevent us from thinking rationally and reaching truthful conclusions. Oh, and we all have them.

Here are the top 10 cognitive biases starting with the mother of all biases:

1. Confirmation bias: the tendency to seek and find confirmatory evidence in support of already existing beliefs and ignore or reinterpret disconfirming evidence.

It also includes the tendency to be much more skeptical of evidence that disagrees with your existing beliefs.

Example:
  •  When we're looking for data to back up our views we notice that the ones that support it stand out as if they're blinking, and the ones that don't support it we ignore. It's so much easier for me to brush off disconfirming evidence and come up with easy justifications for it. 
How to fix it:
  • Be more skeptical about data that supports your views. Since your views are relying on that data, you should do an extra amount of work to ensure it is accurate. A few years ago when Chinese scientists claimed mathematical proof the universe came into existence spontaneously from nothing, I didn't accept it as proof despite my desire to do so. I made sure that the evidence stood the test of time first. 
  • Try and seek out data that is critical of your own view. I look for criticism of atheism all the time. I look for criticism of my political views all the time

2. Sunk-cost bias: the tendency to believe in something because of the cost sunk into that belief. (Hanging onto losing stocks, unsuccessful relationships, etc.)

Example:
  • Religious people holding onto creationism to the point of absurdity because they've believed it for so long.
  • My own belief in free will was held for years because I had held it for a long time and it had become such a deep part of my identity.
How to fix it:
  • The amount of time you believe in something should bear no importance to whether or not the view is true. 
  • Consider that the things you've believed for a longer amount of time might even mean they're less likely to be true, since you were likely younger and less knowledgeable when you started believing them.

3. Anchoring bias: the tendency to rely too heavily on a past reference or on one piece of information when making decisions.

Example:
  • We all have the tendency to refer to one piece of information that caught our attention because knowing all the pertinent information is just too difficult.
  • Scientific studies in health or medicine that get a lot of attention that are then falsified are still being used by people as the basis of their view.
How to fix it: 
  • If you're relying on a single data point to assess an issue or to come to a conclusion on it, you need to make sure that data point is accurate and representative of the subject matter. 
  • Don't base your views on a single data point, or let it too strongly influence your assessment. Read up on other studies. 
  • Recognize that you will likely make a guess about something based on a suggested value that is deliberately given to you in order to bias you in a particular way.

4. Framing effects: the tendency to draw different conclusions based on how data are presented.

Example:
  • According to a CNBC poll 4 years ago that surveyed two different groups. one was asked whether they opposed Obamacare, and the other the Affordable Care Act. 46% of the group that was asked about "Obamacare" was opposed to the law, while 37% of the group asked about the "Affordable Care Act" was opposed to the law.
  • At the same time, more people support "Obamacare" (29%) than those who support ACA (22%.) In other words, having "Obama" in the name "raises the positives and the negatives," as CNBC put it.
How to fix it:
  • Just like how peer review process withholds the names of the person being reviewed and the reviewer to help eliminate this bias, you should sometimes withhold the names of people or organizations when making a case. 
  • You should also study the merit of the data on its own rather than dismiss it entirely based on its source or whose name is associated with it. I will recognize for example when my political opponents are correct. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Another Reason Why The Claim "Goodness Is Grounded In God" Fails


Suppose I have five different theists who each believe in five different gods with varying moral attributes before me. They each argue that goodness is grounded in god and that without god there is no way to have objective moral values.

One by one they make their case and describe their god's moral attributes — one god loves homosexuals, the other four hate homosexuals; three are highly jealous, the other two humble; three say eating meat is immoral, the other two are indifferent to meat eating; two of them think men and women are equal, the other three say men are superior to women; three of them think abortion is justified, the other two say it isn't.

Suppose I'm also told by all believers that all of the gods share the same basic properties that the traditional notion of god has: timeless, changeless, immaterial mind, who also must be infinitely good, infinitely wise, and can do anything logically possible.


How can I ground moral goodness in "God" when I have multiple gods who each ground different and incompatible moral values — without having an objective standard that exists independently of all these gods that I can use to assess them by?

You see, telling me that god grounds goodness does nothing to tell me what goodness actually is and how I can identify goodness from non-goodness. It states an unintelligible, circular argument: God is goodness, and goodness is god.

Each theist tries to tell me that only their god grounds goodness, and not the others. But going by the whole notion of "God" grounding goodness, there is no way for me to tell which one actually is without an objective standard independently of god. I certainly can't rely on my moral intuitions. Moral intuitions are often culturally relative, and will be different in different people.

For this, any many other reasons, the notion that goodness is grounded in god fails.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

England's 1677 Proposed Atheism And Blasphemy Bill


There's a scene in the second episode of the excellent documentary Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief where Johnathan Miller meets with an archivist of the House of Lords and they search through the original drafts that would eventually become the 1697 Blasphemy Act. Miller discovers a frighteningly worded draft for a proposed Atheism and Blasphemy Bill, that luckily never made it into law. It proposed that

if any person, being the age of 16 years or more not being visibly and apparently distracted and out of his wits by sickness or natural infirmity, or not a mere natural fool, void of common sense, shall, after the day whereon the Royal Assent shall be given to this Act, be word or writing deny that there is a God [or deny either of the two Natures of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, that is, His being both perfect God and perfect Man, or shall declare that he believes not in God,] ..... that person, upon complaint thereof made to any Justice of Peace, are due proof by two witnesses, shall be committed to prison, there to remain without bail or mainprise, in order to his trial, at which trial being by his peers legally convicted, he shall have no benefit of clergy, but judgment of death shall pass upon him [and execution shall follow, without pardon or reprieve, of which he is by this Act made altogether incapable]; (Bold mine)

Imagine living in a society with a law like that? This sounds very much like the blasphemy laws in modern day theocracies like Saudi Arabia. It's a good thing we in the West live in a time where we have a separation of church and state, and where we've mostly come to our senses about the victimless crime of blasphemy. See the full wording below.


To watch the full documentary go here: Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief 
See also the Report of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts

Monday, September 4, 2017

Nuance People, Nuance!



I've been inspired to write a short rant about how we need to promote the idea of nuance in our social, political, and ideological views. To me these nuances are common sense, but all too often in today's discourse they are all but forgotten.

  • You can hate Nazis and white supremacists and still be critical of the Black Lives Matter movement. 
  • You can be critical of US and Western foreign policy and still think that Islamic terrorists are inspired by the Islamic religion to commit violence.
  • You can agree with basic feminism, which is gender equality, and still be critical of many proponents and ideas of third wave feminism. 
  • You can think political correctness has gone too far and still agree that we should have some basic norms of respect and decency. 
  • You can think political correctness has gone too far and still be a liberal or a conservative who's against racism and sexism.
  • You can stand up for the freedom of speech for people with hateful ideologies and still be against what their ideology is about.
  • You can think Islam is a sexist, homophobic, and violent religion and still respect the human rights of Muslims.
  • You can stand for trans-rights and not be transphobic for not wanting to have sex with them.
  • You can stand for the rights of racial minorities and be critical of the crime problems and social issues in their communities.
  • You can be a liberal and be critical of Islam, contemporary feminism, and political correctness.
  • You can be a Republican or a conservative or even a Trump supporter and not be a racist, sexist, homophobic, Nazi sympathizer.
  • You can be for higher taxes on the rich and more government regulation and recognize that some tax laws and government regulations hurt the economy.
  • You can be an atheist and think that religion has positive social benefits.
  • You can think that there is legitimate criticism of Islam and not be an anti-Muslim bigot.
  • You can agree that some racists criticize Islam and not all critics of Islam are racists.
  • You can think that immigration needs to have controls and limits and not be a racist xenophobe.
  • You can stand for the rights of Muslims and not be a Jihadist.
  • You can support a political candidate and not agree with all their positions.
  • You can support a public figure and not agree with all their positions.
  • You can be critical of the State of Israel and not be an anti-Semitist.
  • You can be critical of the Palestinians and not be a Zionist.

These are just some of the nuanced views that are possible that today's social, political, and ideological debates seem to completely leave out. Because we've become way too tribalistic and black and white in our thinking, what we need to do is constantly remind ourselves and others that nuance exists. It's more important now than ever. As I think of more nuanced views in my interactions, I will be adding them to this list. If you have any suggestions to add, mention them down in the comment box and please spread the word!

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